Good Life

Seeing Shanghai | Mix of China’s conservative governance, liberal economics has created ‘copying’ culture

After traveling by boat for a few hours along the beautiful Li River in China, our guide casually mentioned that when we stop in the next village, there would be shops selling expensive name-brand leather bags, like Prada and Gucci. My wife and I looked uninterested in spending thousands of dollars on a single purse.

Our guide clarified: “just ask to see the locked room in the back.”

Sure enough, in the back room were floor-to-ceiling display cases of apparently perfect copy leather bags, even with the proper “certificates of authenticity,” for a tenth or less the price of the real thing.

This issue is a major difference between China and the United States. In the U.S., we call it violations of intellectual property rights and piracy. In China they call it just “copycatting,” or “shanzhai” in Chinese.

Hua Yu in “China in 10 Words,” identifies shanzhai as one of the words that is key to understanding modern China.

Shanzhai, according to Hua, is a recent concept in China that has grown far beyond mere copying. The concept has matured into four different grades, from low-quality copies that are obvious fakes to high-quality copies that look exactly like the original.

At the high-end, are the Prada and Gucci bags like the ones we saw. The rumor is that they are made in the same factories as the originals and are practically indistinguishable from the real items.

At the low-end, well, everyone knows they aren’t the real thing. The quality is very low, but the price is even lower. Often the brand name that is being copycatted is modified slightly, so everyone knows what is being copied.

According to Hua, this all really started with cheap cellphones. For example, Nokia cellphones were copycatted as “Nokir.”

It even reached a point where a copycat cellphone was sold a few years back under the fake brand name “Harvard University,” with President Barack Obama as their spokesperson, saying he used their “Blockberry.”

Again, Hua says copycatting goes beyond mere copying. It seems to involve a little bit of imitation as a form of flattery. Also though, there is an element of rebellion against the rules and official control; of the “little guy” sticking it to the people with the money and power.

There is also a side to it that involves parody and spoof, and it has grown to the point that everything and everyone is open to copycatting in China today — except the Communist Party, current leaders and retired but still living leaders.

Today, even Mao Zedong has been seen on posters advertising karaoke bars, in his uniform and cap, singing into a microphone.

The Internet seems to be a perfect vehicle for this kind of copycatting. The official government news show on CCTV is parodied on the Internet by a copycat news show, and during a recent National People’s Congress, a copycat delegate appeared on the Internet, mockingly saying he was elected by his immediate family, with more popular support than most of the real delegates.

I don’t mean to ignore the serious economic side to copycatting. According to Hua, almost anything that can be copycatted is copycatted; from cameras and MP3 players, to sodas, milk and medications. If I had to guess, I think Hollywood is likely losing the most, millions if not billions of dollars in sales.

Since we’ve been in Shanghai, my family and I have made an informal game of watching to see how soon after a movie comes out in the theatre will the pirated DVDs appear in the street carts. Usually it only takes a couple days, and they sell for only about a $1 U.S.

During a recent government crackdown on pirated DVDs, the local government put out a picture of thousands of pirated DVDs being run over by a steamroller. But we joked that all it really meant was that the pirated DVDs were two blocks away, rather than only one. And in a week or so it was back to normal.

Hua himself has found unauthorized copies of his books being sold on street corners, which the seller excused by saying, “It’s not pirated, it’s a copycat.”

Hua thinks that this wave of copycatting that has swept across China is a product of the confusing times. In 1989, the crackdown after the Tiananmen Square protests ended the political reforms that had been taking place, while the economic reforms continued and gained momentum.

Today, China is conservative politically, if not dogmatic, while at the same time it is liberal economically, if not anarchistic.

According to Hua, this imbalance has confused people about right and wrong, and has lead people to acting out and rebelling through the economic ways available to them, resulting in copycatting.

In the West, we view copycatting as basically stealing.

But Hua says in China it can also be kind of a rebellious grasp for freedom.

Hua recalls how during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Olympic torch relay was carefully controlled, with corporate sponsors and careful vetting of who was allowed to carry the torch, through which cities.

But a small mountain village held their own copycat Olympic torch relay. It was a simple home-made torch, that everyone in the village had a chance to carry, because they were all proud of their country and what hosting the Olympics meant.

The video of the copycat event spread over the Internet in China like wildfire.

Yes, it was just a copycat. But maybe there was and is more going on, too.